One man’s 5k- mile trek through war- torn West Asia
Ask most people whether they fancy a four- month, 5,000mile trek across West Asia and they might conclude you need your head seen to. With civil war raging in Syria, Iraq mired in internecine conflict while mopping up the remnants of Daesh, al- Qa’eda running amok in southern Yemen and simmering strife between Israelis and Palestinians, walking across 13 countries might not seem like an obvious itinerary.
But Levison Wood, it is fair to say, is not your average traveller. A committed biped, he is the author of a trio of books on walking the Nile, Himalayas and Americas respectively. Ostensibly unlike the other television- led journeys which preceded it, this expedition was meant to be a lower key affair, though online publicity for an accompanying documentary suggests otherwise.
The adventure begins in Iraq, where, before you can say rocket- launcher, Wood has launched himself into a military operation, sitting on the front of an advancing tank as the Shia Hashd militia flush out the last diehards of Daesh. This is either commendably courageous or borderline idiotic, depending on one’s view. A more peaceful and reflective sojourn follows in the reflooded marshes of southern Iraq.
The Gulf countries of Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE are despatched in quick order and are not really his cup of tea. In his own words, and rather unfairly, he claims to have learnt that “very little comes for free in the Arab world”, though as the book and journey continue he realises the value of the extraordinary hospitality he is receiving, often at considerable personal danger to his constantly changing companions. Ever the paratrooper, he enjoys drinking bouts where he can, and regales us with tales of stinking hangovers. What would his heroes Lawrence of Arabia and the ascetic explorer Wilfred Thesiger have made of it?
In Oman, the camels come out at last and Wood heads to the desert with relief, and another guide who doesn’t really pass muster: “Nothing can beat having a local who knows the language and the nuances of native customs, religion and culture,” he writes.
Yemen brings out the reporter in him. He writes movingly of the horrendous ruination of the country at the hands of the Saudi- led coalition. It’s more hairraising stuff, all the while approaching the closed kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose government shows little inclination to allow him in, notwithstanding the personal intervention of a senior British royal, perhaps Prince Charles. Eventually he does manage to enter, though only after braving the Somali port of Bossaso and a voyage by rickety dhow that would terrify the bejesus out of most travellers.
The Saudi regime is odious, especially under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but Wood at least gets a chance to see a side of